VANCOUVER, B.C. — There have been few occasions during this early season offensive onslaught by the Sounders when their goalkeeper and defenders have stood out above any attacking player.
But a largely disappointed visiting locker room Saturday night was nonetheless casting appreciative postgame glances toward netminder Stefan Frei and center back Kim Kee-hee after a last-minute flurry nearly ended in disaster. Frei secured his team a scoreless draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps with a tremendous save off a point-blank shot late in extra time while Kim made a huge tackle seconds later to prevent the rebound from being fired in to an empty net.
A penalty shot awarded on the tackle was waved off upon video review and allowed the Sounders to extend to four matches their club-record unbeaten streak to start a season.
“It was great hustle by Kim; that’s what I saw,’’ Frei said. “When the guy cuts to the inside and it’s one-on-one versus the keeper, most defenders or players tend to shut down and hope for the best. But he kept going and made my save count and made sure the ball stayed out.’’
Frei was downplaying just a tad the magnitude of his own stop on Whitecaps forward Joaquin Ardaiz, who’d raced down the right side and twisted two defenders inside out before finding himself face-to-face with Frei. The Uruguayan unleashed a bullet that Frei somehow got to in time.
But the crowd of 24,803 at B.C. Place Stadium was already rising to its feet in anticipation as the rebound rolled straight to Korean midfielder Hwang In-beom, who was poised to slot it into the vacated goal. Out of nowhere, Kim, who’d made a beeline for the open Whitecaps player the instant Ardaiz got his shot away, came sliding in to knock the ball away and his opponent off his feet.
Head referee Robert Sibiga signaled the penalty. With the Sounders howling in protest, he went to video review and — several anxious minutes later — correctly reversed the call, much to the displeasure of the irate home crowd.
The Sounders thus escaped this Cascadia Cup opener with an unbeaten 3-0-1 record intact, though were not altogether satisfied with their play. After scoring 10 goals their first three matches, they looked sluggish at times throughout this first match following the two-week FIFA international break.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer opted to throw out the same starting lineup for a fourth consecutive game — a club record — despite regulars Nicolas Lodeiro, Gustav Svensson, Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan returning from international play this week. Raul Ruidiaz journeyed back from visiting family in Peru. One of those on the field was defender Chad Marshall, joining Kyle Beckerman as only the second non-keeper in MLS history to make 400 career starts.
There’s a sense of purpose to the team this season, so the fact none of the jet-lagged Sounders begged off playing wasn’t altogether surprising, though the Whitecaps complicated matters by dropping several defenders back all game long.
The result was a match largely devoid of interesting moments, though Frei had to be alert throughout. He came up huge in the 39th minute with a stop to his right on a cannon blast by Vancouver forward Lass. He made a swiping hand save in the 76th minute when a harmless-looking shot somehow found its way through a pile of players and nearly wound up in the net.
“Goalkeeping is a hard position for a lot of different reasons,’’ Schmetzer said. “He actually earned his money tonight.’’
Schmetzer wasn’t thrilled with his attack’s inability to penetrate the defensive wall thrown up by Vancouver. He said the team viewed it as “two points lost’’ and promised to spend the week looking at alternatives for when opponents drop in to defensive shells.
“There was a little bit of excitement at the end,’’ he said. “But for 80 minutes of the game there wasn’t much excitement.’’
Schmetzer was pleased with the fitness level of his players, waiting until the 83rd minute to make his first substitution. Svensson nearly scored on a 64th-minute cannon blast from outside the box that was punched away, and Ruidiaz had a couple of in-close chances right before subbing off in the 87th minute.
But all was nearly lost in extra time when Ardaiz broke free on a counterattack down the right side. When Ardaiz cut inside for his shot on Frei, Kim knew he had to get to wide-open countryman Hwang alone at the side of the net.
“That was the moment everybody that knows soccer expected him (Ardaiz) to score,’’ Kim said, through an interpreter. “But I knew that I needed to protect that goal.’’
So he sprinted across the box and flung himself at Hwang and the ball. It was the first time in MLS history two Korean players had played against one another, and Kim’s hustle ensured he didn’t lose the matchup.
Though it took several anxious minutes before the referee waved off the penalty call and confirmed he didn’t come up short.
“I knew I touched the ball first, so I knew immediately,’’ Kim said of the non-foul. “But all of my (screaming) teammates came up and they were speaking for me, so I didn’t have to do anything. But I knew it wasn’t a foul.’’
So did Frei, though the night ended a lot more anxiously than he would have liked considering how his team controlled the ball throughout.
“I think it’s important that you stay engaged in a game, even when you’re not feeling the ball as much,’’ he said. “You move with the flow of the team and communicate … so you don’t get a rude awakening.’’
The Sounders avoided that in the first game this year they failed to put a ball in the other team’s net.